After living together for almost ten years, Mark had been able to calm down Kareen's worried, Are you all right? eyebrow quirk with an equally telepathic I'm fine, I just a need a little space right now jerk of his chin. Cue a microscopic eye roll of agreement/resignation and he was able to decamp the wake in Vorkosigan Surleau's main hall without further notice from the increasingly inebriated relatives and four score close friends of the deceased. It was a measure of his Betan mother's distress and grief that even the famously controlled Cordelia Vorkosigan had given up the pretense and downed her fifth drink of the evening, which saved him from misdirected matronly concern over his retreat.
It hadn't been Mark being subtly and completely unintentionally cut out of the ongoing rounds of Do you remember the time when Father/Aral/the Count said… that had been gnawing at him. He'd managed to develop enough empathy and self-awareness after almost a decade's therapy to recognize it wasn't anyone's fault, he just hadn't been around long enough to be part of those stories. Miles' six years younger twin brother had been quite effectively shut out of at least 85% of the late Count Admiral Aral Vorkosigan's life, first by simply not existing and then by Ser Galen's monastic control.
No, his blacker than usual mood had been set off early that morning, surfing through his personal lap link's daily download from the imported Galactic newsfeeds, while he waited for Kareen to get up and they both prepare for the day's funeral rites. It had been the fifth or sixth variation of the headline BUTCHER OF KOMARR DIES that had set Mark's blood boiling and Killer whispering into his ear about makingeditorial cuts in the most literal manner possible. They don't care about the man he was, just what he'd been accused of, he realized. Eighty plus years of life, of surviving Mad Yuri's War, of bringing Barrayar out from the backwards depths of the Time of Isolation up to something resembling Galactic standards, of being a loving husband/father/grandfather, all reduced to one damning label.
They don't know him. They don't care to learn. We are the only ones who remember him for what he truly was. No longer able to defend himself, Aral Vorkosigan was at the mercy of the memories of his family and their willingness to stand up for him. I never knew him well enough to do the job myself. No, not his job alone, he couldn't let himself fall into that old mental trap. Still…
Unconsciously, Mark's feet set him on the path down the slope of the hill towards the graveyard. The night was cool and he hadn't bothered to grab a jacket on the way out. He welcomed it anyway, to shake off the mild alcoholic lethargy. He needed to… not talk, you couldn't really talk to the dead. But he needed to do something and the Count's grave was the place to start.
As he approached the stone fence marking the graveyard, Mark paused. Inconveniently, it was already occupied, by a single armsman in Vorkosigan livery doing a slow pace in front of the newly tilled earth of the Count-His-Father's grave. Damnit, he didn't want company right now, at least from anyone who could talk back. Who was the idiot who had set the honor guard anyway? With Emperor Gregor getting pie-eyed with the rest of them back at the house, every cubic decimeter of space within a kilometer was being monitored by ImpSec. Fat chance some entrepreneurial grave robber would be able to grab a token at this…
The hair began to rise up on the back of Mark's neck for reasons that had nothing to do with the evening's chill, as he got a closer look at the back of the armsman, still facing away towards the lake. He was tall, very nearly two meters in height, with a flat, graying burr cut of hair. The trouble was, no one among House Vorkosigan's twenty armsmen were that tall, except for Roic almost, and he was nowhere near as heavily muscled as this fellow was and Miles' favored batman was on duty back up at house anyway. A plant? Mark thought, then abandoned the idea immediately. If some arcane enemy wanted to infiltrate the household, they wouldn't be so stupid as to use someone so tall and conspicuous.
The armsman turned, saw Mark, then paused in his silent march. Two eyes, close set, one slightly above the other, stared back at him from under a heavy, almost criminal brow, bisected by a hook nose. He had seen it before, but only in photographs. "Milord Mark," the armsman greeted, his voice low and rumbling, then touched his brow in salute.
We missed taking our meds this morning, oh yes we did, Mark thought wildly, while somehow the still functioning portion of his brain got his tongue and mouth coordinated enough to ask, "Aren't you off duty… Sgt. Bothari?"
"No, sir," Bothari said stolidly. Irritatingly, he seemed quite solid to Mark, without any sort of ethereal transparency to mark him as a ghost. No, just a hallucination. God let him be a hallucination. My life is messed up enough without it being haunted.
"Um, I do believe you are, Sergeant. For about twenty-two years now."
"No, sir," the sergeant repeated. "Never off duty. Not while milord the Count needs me."
He was still trying to figure a way to politely point out that Miles had Pym and Roic serving him these days, when a deep, warm chuckle from the shadows very nearly made Mark bolt right then and there. From out of the shadows stepped a much more familiar figure, as impossibly solid as the sergeant.
"Please stand down, Sergeant," Count Vorkosigan said, a smile creasing his lined face. "You're scaring the boy." He looked much younger than the corpse in the coffin underneath his feet, perhaps about forty or fifty standard years, his hair peppered with salt, not grey all the way through as Mark had mostly known him, wearing dress greens with yellow admiral tabs, not the House uniform he'd been buried in. He seemed more dynamic, his presence filling the area, making Mark automatically stand up straighter. I wish you could have met him in his prime, his mother's voice said again in his memories. "Come closer, son. You've nothing to fear from us," the Count urged.
Mark released his death grip (so to speak) on the stone fence, willing his feet to move closer to the ghostly pair, until he was about a meter away, not quite close enough to touch. "Sir…" He swallowed. "Father, what are you doing here?"
His father glanced down at his own grave. "I think that should be rather obvious," he said, his voice filled with amusement.
"Yes, but that's… not you. Not really. Shouldn't you be... moving on?" Damnit, he wished he studied more about Barrayaran religion, ancestor worship, whatever they called it. Surely not even the dead could argue that Aral Vorkosigan's remembrance burning (remembrance fusion reaction Ivan had said, in a moment of blessed snark) hadn't been enough to placate his soul.
"Why should I, Mark? This is my home," the Count said. He waved his arm wide, taking the house, the lake and the district beyond. "I'm not inclined to leave it."
Mark swallowed. "Does, ah, Mother know you're here?"
"We wait for Milady," Bothari rumbled. "She'll be buried here some day, and I will finally lie at her feet."
Which finally explained the rather peculiar perpendicular arrangement of the sergeant's grave compared to the others in the yard, Mark realized. It did make him wonder seriously about the interview screening for Vorkosigan armsmen though.
"Cordelia's religion states that the dead's soul should move on to the next life," the Count explained. "Frankly, I could think of no worse fate than to be separated from the land I was born and bred in, to some vague ethereal reward. I don't think I'll trouble contradicting her right at the moment, if her belief grants her comfort."
"And me?" Mark asked.
The Count sat down on a stone bench, patting down fabric of his pants, deliberately damping down his presence. "You needed to see me one last time, I think."
"If I hadn't let myself be diverted to Miles' little crisis on Kibou-daini, maybe Kareen and I could have gone to Sergyar, to see you and Mother."
"You had no particular reason to go to Sergyar. And if you're feeling guilty about not getting me into that little life-extension project the Durona Group had come up, you had no way of knowing the need would be so urgent."
"How did you know about...?" Mark clutched his head. "Fuck, am I hallucinating this or not?" His mother's god help him if he was. He had to be putting on a fine show for ImpSec's remote monitors then.
The Count smiled again, conspiratorially. "Don't worry, Mark. ImpSec won't see anything except a son meditating before his father's grave. Our little secret."
"Under the circumstances, I'll take your word for it." Mark sighed, sitting down beside him. After a moment, he said, "I'm sorry."
"For what, son?"
"For not being there when you died. For not being there so many times when you were alive. We had so little time."
"There's many a soldier's son who had no time with their father at all, as Cordelia will rightly tell you," the Count said firmly. "Shall I be jealous, for my own son creating a fine life for himself out of the ashes of a nightmarish upbringing, rather than trying to twist himself into some notion of what he thought I wanted?"
"I... suppose not," Mark admitted, then asked, "Not even over Kareen and I choosing not to have children?"
"Cordelia is the one with the obsession over expanding her genetic empire," the Count said. "Myself, I found that Miles' children ran me ragged enough. Don't trouble yourself over it on my account, especially now." He rose to his feet, and Mark did likewise. "You never disappointed me, Mark," he said.
He nodded. "Thank you, Father."
"You're welcome, my son." The Count gestured towards the gate. "Now go on. Kareen is likely wondering whether she should go hunting for you, and it's too cold and dark right now to play Search and Flee."
"All right." Mark turned to go, then paused. "Will I see you again, sir?"
"So long as you remember me." The Count gave him a casual salute of dismissal, and Mark headed towards the gate. When he turned to close the gate, his father and Sergeant Bothari were already gone, if they'd ever really been there at all.
He trudged back up the hill. It was late, he was tired, and Kareen was waiting for him.